One of the many perks of having severe acne as a pubescent mess is that you get a head start down the oral birth control spiral long before you actually start having sex. For me, I was put on birth control around age 14, perhaps a little earlier (memories of this time are understandably hazy). For context, the first penis to ever enter my genitals came at 17.
The years to follow would be filled with what felt like an endless stream of dermatology appointments that usually ended with expensive topical prescriptions and always with tears. Frustration and helplessness overcame me several times as I was bounced between prescription brands and oral contraceptives that promised to clear my skin, only with a slight chance of minor side effects like depression and blood clots.
Certain birth control brands seemed to work for six or seven months at a time before they would start giving way to swollen welts on my forehead and chin. Others didn’t work at all. For all of high school and half of college, I went up and down and all around with breakouts that varied from trivial inconvenience to melt-down-inducing, depressive-episode-triggering cysts that seemed to overtake my face, personality, and general sense of self-worth. By the summer before my junior year of college, I was living in New York City, which meant that for the first time, I was surrounded by the world’s most ridiculously beautiful, poreless humans all with pristine, almost alien skin (ok, not everyone in New York has perfect skin, but it’s hard not to feel that way sometimes). My skin was at a particularly low point and I was at the end of my rope. I needed a solution to my acne; I would do anything just to make it go away.
This is when I met Trinessa. She wore this beautiful purple and green packaging and her different colored pills were always laid out in a little circle, in just the right order. She was intoxicating; she worked like magic. To be fair, I started on Spironolactone at the same time as the Trinessa, and the combination of the two cleared my skin in a way I had never seen. Finally, I was able to get to know myself outside of the pimples on my face. I felt freer and more at ease socially. For the next two years, I took both pills every single day religiously, and saw continued results.
I graduated from college this year. For months, I’ve been experiencing a spike in anxiety, to a degree with which I wasn’t previously familiar. It’s been scary, and the effects have been surprisingly physical, as anxiety can manifest in the body in some rather unexpected ways. The most unsettling were ocular migraines, where my peripheral vision would cut out and I’d start seeing bright spots instead of whatever was in front of me. These would last about an hour and then I’d return to normal, only slightly more freaked out. After visiting with neurologists and receiving MRI scans, it was determined that there’s nothing abnormal going on inside my brain, just anxiety. Having reported these migraines, however, I was now at a slightly higher risk of having a stroke if I stayed on oral birth control. A stroke. When I heard this, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, going off of birth control would mean certain death for my dewy complexion. On the other, staying on it could mean actual, literal death or brain damage to the rest of my body.
My gynecologist—bless her brilliant, beautiful, blonde heart—made the ultimate call for me and took me off the stuff for good.
Despite the potential danger that the little pills could have caused me, the decision to stop taking them was really hard, and not just because of my attachment to my clear skin. Up until the day I stopped popping them, I had lived my entire adult life on birth control. I didn’t know my body without added hormones, the daily chore of sucking down a little baby-stopper, the extra estrogen filling out my breasts and hips and thighs. I’d only ever had, like, three periods before I started taking the pills, regulating them to high heaven (a real blessing, by the way). But this meant that I’d never really known my body as the natural wonder of self-regulation and timing and cycles that it truly is, until stopping the contraceptives. In a way, by breaking up with Trinessa, I have been given the gift of reinvention; of relearning myself as a grown woman.
This is all to say that, as potentially dangerous as hormonal birth control can be—the list of side effects is really quite appalling, check it out if you haven’t already—I felt a strange connection to this little pill that had been with me for going on eight years. Birth control saw me through some tumultuous times in high school and college; it saw me through the first great loves of my life. Now that I have been without it for almost three months, I can see and feel changes in my body that, frankly, make me sad. Yes, my skin is back to bad breakouts. But also, my body feels different—smaller, less plump. I’m realizing the journey to acceptance of my womanhood as it exists naturally is going to be a difficult process, made more difficult by a world that conditions women to believe that we must always be changing ourselves from our natural state. But before I can truly move on, I will properly mourn the ending of my birth control. One less prescription, a lot more me.
Written by Emma Glassman-Hughes